Stuart Katz

Why I traveled 60 hours for 48 hours at home

Working in the travel industry, I love what I do and try not to let my frequent traveling get to me (although, admittedly, I do often wake up not sure where I am). But occasionally I find myself in the midst of a meeting schedule that just can’t be changed, even as I want to be home for Shabbat.

Such was the case this past week when I was confronted with a flurry of meetings in the Western U.S. – meetings that must be completed during this time period. While I was buried in paperwork and business talk, a world away my family and my people were engaged in a much different type of ritual. Tens of thousands of youth from the Bnei Akiva Youth Movement in Israel were participating in the month-long extravaganza of Chodesh Irgun. Chodesh Irgun is the one month each year in which Zionist youth groups engage in a series of “rivalries” or competitions.

The culmination of this month takes place when we read the weekly Torah portion of Toldot, which describes the birth of twins Jacob and Esau to Rebekah and Isaac. Jacob gets the firstborn Esau to trade him his birthright and later tricks his elderly father into giving him his firstborn blessing. At a larger level, it is a story of intergenerational relationships and how family history shapes us.

The grand extravaganza takes place on Saturday evening – Shabbat Irgun — at hundreds of locations throughout the country, as Israel’s incredible youth show their absolute best, and 9th-grade high school freshmen are indoctrinated with their shevet – a tribal name that will remain with them for life.

For me, the month-long celebration of Chodesh Irgun and Bnei Akiva are inextricably linked.  As the world’s largest religious Zionist organization, Bnei Akiva traces its name and ideology to the story of Rabbi Akiva, who represents devotion to the Torah and love of G-d and Israel. He is a major figure in Israel’s fight for independence, which is symbolized by the competitive “rivalries” of young people during Chodesh Irgun.

Having grown up in the Bnei Akiva movement in the U.S. and having moved to Israel in large credit to this movement, how could I not be home for Shabbat Irgun? So In spite of a cancelled flight, I was going to get home in time – no matter what it took.

Fast forward 30 long hours of rerouted flights, and I opened my front door to be welcomed home. I am proud to be a resident of Hashmonaim, a suburban gated community comprised of both immigrants and Israeli-born residents – all living by the highly respected values of Bnei Akiva in both words and actions. This past week I took an even greater pride in the fact that our youngest child, Dafna, was privileged to be the madricha for the 4th graders – Bnei Akiva’s youngest group.  Madrichim serve as youth leaders in the community throughout the year, but during the Jewish month of Cheshvan when Chodesh Irgun takes place, they work with impeccable dedication. They mobilize hundreds of youth in projects, creating an unprecedented level of pride in what they do through the year’s chosen theme — this year, Zionism. The all-volunteer youth staff members have learned by their elders’ example and continue to pass on the unprecedented value of giving and living the incredible life found through residing in the Homeland.

As the Rabbi of Hashmonaim mentioned in his introductory remarks on Saturday night, “Bnei Akiva continues to bring Jews home from the Diaspora to Israel.” We are living in an age where we witness firsthand the  leadership of Bnei Akiva continuing to “put their money where their mouth is” and make it possible to fulfill the Zionist Dream – not only en route to Israel, but once home. What joy it was to stand this year as in years past, at the end of the month-long celebration, with hundreds of others who grew up in Bnei Akiva – people who never outgrew the Movement and certainly not its values.

As the new shevet  “Avichai” — named in memory of the late cherished and admired leader Rabbi Abraham Zuckerman – was lit up in a fire display, the various groups or shevatimgathered on the basketball court. By the flicker of firelight, I thought of the meaning of Home, of family, and of the power of dedicated young people. Standing among the shevatim, I reflected on each and every hour I was home this weekend and how worth my efforts it was to be there.

And efforts they were. Some called me crazy – and others undoubtedly thought it, but those who grew up in Bnei Akiva and others who have since sampled the “Kool Aid” certainly understand what compelled me to fly for 60 hours in order to be home for 48.  Asked why I did it, I could glibly say that I did it for my kids.  In truth, I did it for myself.  I did it because I am most grateful for what Bnei Akiva has done for me and continues to do for my children and for Jewish youth the world over.

May we all continue to live the Zionist Dream – preferably at Home! Aloh V’naaleh!  Kadima Bnei Akiva.

About the Author
Stuart is a co-founder of the Nafshenu Alenu mental health educational initiative founded in 2022. He currently serves on the Board of Visitors of McLean Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University Medical School. He serves as Chairman of the Board of OGEN – Advancement of Mental Health Awareness in Israel; chairman of Mental Health First Aid Israel and a partner in “Deconstructing Stigma” in Israel. He is on the Board of Directors of the Religious Conference Management Association. He has counseled over 7,000 individuals and families in crisis